Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station” describes a place for cars to get gas that’s “oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black translucency.” The station seems pretty unpleasant but for a few key details: a comic book, a dirty dog on a wicker sofa. The speaker notices among all the casual disorder that someone cared enough to arrange the cans of oil on a shelf “so that they softly say: / Esso — so — so — so.”
Bishop wrote it decades ago, but the musicality of that line registers even now in the duo Sylvan Esso. Rarer than a filling station laid out with tenderness is an indie band that’s won both critical praise and commercial success — and, oddly enough, the first line of Sylvan Esso’s “PARAD(w/m)E” mentions a gas station that’s running dry. Its companion video depicts a group of seven or eight dancers walking out of an arid flatland and into a small town that’s so cinematically run-down it’s almost too perfect. There isn’t much of a narrative, although in between rounds of handclaps, the group raids a mini-mart at sunrise in front of a weathered sign for a “Ranch View Motel.” It’s clearly the American Southwest, and behind the rows of candy and corn balls in the mini-mart are signs for a highway, U.S. 54. A little searching on Instagram for the highly Instagrammable motel sign indicates the location: Vaughn, N.M., a little town of 446 people in the state’s forlorn Llano Estacado. How did a band from Durham, N.C. come across that?
“It wasn’t me, it was our wonderful director, Dan, who drove through and saw it,” Sylvan Esso vocalist Amelia Meath tells SF Weekly. “He was just driving, and he calls me from the road — he goes to Kansas a lot — and he was like, ‘I’m here! Oh my God, I’m here! Everything’s amazing around here. Jesus, look at that!’ He was on the phone, so I couldn’t see anything, but the way he was talking left me convinced. And they let us rent a street in their town.”
The people of Vaughn were truly kind, Meath adds. The crew set up catering in a building with its roof partially collapsed, and at one point there weren’t enough chairs for everybody.
“Two men from around the block came and built us like a couple benches, and pulled out a booth from an abandoned restaurant so everyone could sit, all out of the kindness of their hearts,” Meath says. “It was so much easier.”
Meath is disarming enough to crack herself up at regular intervals, and peppers her speech with extemporized interjections like “Oh gee whiz, ain’t no thang!” More than a few Sylvan Esso videos contain exuberant dancing, and those two traits might lead people who aren’t familiar with the band to conclude that it’s merely a happy-funtimes sort of act, suitable for mid-afternoon festival slots and as a soundtrack for poolside margaritas, Matt and Kim without the lovey-dovey. Those things are true — but that’s not the whole picture, and fans and the curious can decide for themselves this Thursday, July 12, when Sylvan Esso plays at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre.
While it’s also true that the duo’s 2017 album What Now won a Grammy nomination and that Rostam — which is to say, Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend — remixed “PARAD(w/m)E” last month, one thing that isn’t true is an item People magazine reported in May: that Sylvan Esso had worked with Pharrell Williams on an Ariana Grande record. Meath and her partner, the seemingly more introverted instrumentalist Nick Sanborn, have said they want to make “electronic music that sounds like a human made it.” That’s not a commodity you hawk on charisma alone, or probably to a teen-pop megastar at all.
“I think all electronic music sounds like a human made it, because a human did,” Meath elaborates. “Even dudes just deciding what the presets are. But what I’m really interested in making is electronic music that’s crackly and has flaws. I like the ugliness, which is of course what I mean by humanity.”
Nudging away from standard pop, Sylvan Esso uses found sounds — “I’m interested in pedestrian noise,” Meath says — and a slightly arrhythmic quality infuses some of their songs as well.
“Have you ever synced up to a traffic light when the light is beeping on and off, sync up to your music, and you slowly realize that it’s just your brain that’s syncing up so the light and sound are the same?” she says. “That’s a quality that we look for in our music: A beat is a beat.”
Meath professes to have grown more introverted as she’s gotten older, and that may be one reason why the lyrics to many Sylvan Esso songs are “real bummers.” (That may be a hard association for Bay Area fans to retain; Sylvan Esso’s set at 2016’s weather-befouled Treasure Island Musical Festival was one of that rainy weekend’s highlights.) At this year’s Bonnaroo — where, five years, earlier, Tom Petty played an entire jukebox worth of hits through a rainstorm — Meath joined the members of My Morning Jacket and many others in that most bittersweet of rites: a “SuperJam” tribute to the late rocker. Specifically, she sang Stevie Nicks’ part in the duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon taking Petty’s part.
“If I had thought it was a tribute to Tom Petty in my heart instead of a tribute for the people of Bonnaroo, I would have sung ‘You’re So Bad’ very quietly to myself and probably cried,” Meath says. “That’s my favorite Tom Petty song.”
Reports of Petty’s October 2017 death by accidental overdose were initially walked back only to have the bad news reconfirmed. Looked at in a certain way, he died twice. Hearing this, Meath begins to tear up.
“I’m actually getting verklempt about it now,” she says. “You have different moments when you slowly realize you’ve been gifted the actual gift of a professional music career, and when you can see that it’s really happening and that you’ve done it, that you’re beyond the crest of a hill and you’re doing it. One of those moments for me was when my other band, Mountain Man, was singing backup for Feist at Jazz Fest. We had an early-ish set at 7 p.m., before the headliners went on. And we were finishing our last song and right as we finished, the opening chords of ‘American Girl’ started playing and the whole band just dropped our instruments and ran through the backstage, running the golf-cart highway to get to Tom Petty, and it was just so beautiful. Don’t worry, I love to cry.”
Sylvan Esso, with Kamasi Washington, Thursday, July 12, 7:30 p.m., at the Greek Theatre, 2001 Gayley Road, Berkeley. $42.50; thegreekberkeley.com